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From clore@columbia-center.org Sun Oct 8 10:31:52 2000
Date: Thu, 5 Oct 2000 23:30:50 -0500 (CDT)
Organization: Self
From: "Clore Daniel C" <clore@columbia-center.org>
Subject: [smygo] The Post-Liberal Apocalypse
Article: 106267
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The Post-Liberal Apocalypse. For four days in August, it was end-times in L.A.

By Barbara Ehrenreich, in The Progressive,
5 October 2000

Inside the Staples Center, linen-clad delegates conferred on their cell phones and celebrated the most conservative Democratic ticket in at least fifty years. Outside, the uninvited shouted their conviction that the centers of power, Democratic Party included, have grown so hopelessly cruel and corrupt that they no longer deserve to hold.

There was, of course, plenty of less radical and apocalyptic talk coming from the familiar liberal figures. The Jesse Jacksons, junior and senior, Paul Wellstone, and Russ Feingold rushed from podium to podium, expressing disappointment in the party and then urging their audiences to nevertheless get behind Gore. At the Campaign for America's Future conference, held in a room two stories below the surface of the Earth in the Hyatt, speakers fretted about Social Security privatization, Medicare expansion, and whether Gore has the mojo to mobilize a numb and anxious electorate.

But the object of liberal loyalties--the Democratic Party--refused to cooperate, or even put on a smiley face. To get into the Staples Center, you had to pass through two security checkpoints, including one metal detector and two searches of bags and purses. When we made our way in, we spent twenty minutes being shunted around by security guards before finding a couple of seats in the bleachers, way up near the altitude where the balloons awaited their post- acceptance-speech release. Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wound up a bland and cheerful speech, then a rumpled man rushed out to the lectern and announced that it was time to vote on the party platform.


Some desultory shouts from the floor.


Only ours, screeched inaudibly from up high.

That was it--platform approved--and the giant monitors flanking the stage moved on to a five-minute video of Gore and son climbing a mountain.

To see the party's contradictions in high-contrast display, you could attend the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees rally outside Loews hotel in Santa Monica. The hotel, which has been doing everything it can to bust HERE's unionization drive, is owned by Jonathan Tisch, a major Gore funder. A Latino hotel worker assured us that Gore would bring Tisch around, that he would, in fact, show up in person at the rally--although at this point Gore had not even touched down in L.A.

The landscape, too, refused to nourish traditional liberal hopes. This was not the L.A. of Hollywood hedonism warded off repeatedly, in the Gore and Lieberman speeches, with the apotropaic words "family" and "faith." It was the L.A. of Mike Davis and Ridley Scott, a city catastrophically divided by race and by class, tragic and doomed. In anticipation of vast civic disorder, the cops had cleared the entire periphery of the Staples Center, creating a multi-block dead zone of shuttered stores and deserted sidewalks. On the streets, the 8,000- strong army of men and women in blue lounged or stood in formation with their truncheons and rubber-bullet guns at the ready. Above, helicopters dipped and rose, monitoring every pedestrian movement below, diligently protecting the Dems from the demos. In this context, the liberal hope that the party could be reformed and revived seemed to fit the anthropological definition of a cargo cult.

Strange things bloom in the desert of post-democratic politics, and of these the most enigmatic was the Shadow Convention held about a mile's walk--cop-imposed detours included--from the real one. Here, Naderites mingled with Hagelinites, potheads with policy wonks, in a combination movement-center and four-day-long celebrity talk show. Depending on when you sampled it, you might find Jonathan Kozol decrying child poverty or neoliberal writer Mickey Kaus declaring poverty pretty much over, or Roseanne demanding a third party, or Newsweek's Jonathan Alter denouncing the Naderites. We walked in once in time to hear Ram Dass announce, "I don't really exist. My consciousness is here and there and everywhere."

On another visit to the Shadow, we were approached by a five-foot tall, two-toned green frog and told by its human companion that if we kissed the frog and disclosed our e-mail addresses to it, something called frog.com would make a contribution to the Shadow. It was brilliant and energetic. It was attended by at least 500 people at all times. It did not add up, nor did it have to.

If you wanted more single-mindedness, you could attend the People's Convention staged by the Socialist Party, the Homeless Convention, the Welfare Rights Conference, or the inaugural meeting of Ministers Against Global Injustice (MAGI).

But the real nexus of radical energy--and focus of police paranoia-- lay completely off the familiar axis connecting liberal to progressive to socialist. This was the Convergence Center operated by the Direct Action Network (DAN), and the only nineteenth century ideology in evidence was anarchism.

We walked carefully around the colorful cloth spread out on the floor in front of an ecumenical altar at the entrance--an indigenous medicine woman's skirt, someone explained to us. We paused to admire the puppet- making and found our way into a workshop on "Anarchism and the Movement," where about twenty-five people, most well under thirty, sat in a circle on the floor and agonized about what to do next. A man worried that the movement was going through an "identity crisis" and losing "coherence." Someone else complained that the direct action strategy that had taken them from Seattle to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and now here had run its course: "What are anarchists?" he asked, and then gave his own answer: "A bunch of white kids running around fucking shit up." Where was the base-building, the community organizing? But others responded confidently that "anarchism brings it all together," that the movement is firmly based in the "youth culture."

>From off-the-axis you could go completely off the map--to the North American Anarchist Conference, ideological home of the nebulous "Black Bloc" that so irritated DAN by trashing chain stores in Seattle. When we arrived, Eugene, Oregon, anarchist guru John Zerzan was winding up a disquisition on the Paleolithic future, when technology and division will be abolished along with the state. If he hadn't been endorsing Ted Kaczynski ("but maybe not his methods") as a radical role model, you could have taken him for a suburban junior high school teacher: middle- aged, soft-spoken, dressed neatly in a polo and khakis.

There were about 200 people here, mostly white, mostly in their teens and twenties, and the only reference to the parallel convention of Democrats was a black and white banner on the wall, proclaiming: "Whoever they vote for, we are ungovernable." What about stone tools in the Paleolithic, someone wanted to know--weren't they technology? No, Zerzan replied, bafflingly: "Tools are not technology." What about the positive uses of technology in bringing people together through the Internet? Why should we settle for "communities based on geographical proximity"? "Hmm, that's something we've got to work on, I guess," said Zerzan.

But if the anarkids weren't all buying Zerzan's retro-vision, they seemed to share his view that most of the human accomplishments of the past 10,000 years amount to a massive mistake. Government, in particular, has got to go. We asked one black-clad youth for his opinion of the liberal Democrats who are trying to move the party to the left. "That still has to do with the government politically," he tells us. "Nothing will really change until the entire system is broken down and restarted." Here, as in the more mild- mannered Convergence Center, the emphasis was far less on what government might do for us than on what it should stop doing--imprisoning and executing people, shooting immigrants at the border, bombing Vieques, beating on people of color. Liberals look at government and see a potential source of succor--prescription drugs for the elderly, Head Start, labor law reform. The anarchists of today's radical youth movement look at government and see the sole of the policeman's boot.

In L.A. that week, the police worked overtime to confirm the most paranoid anarchist suspicions. You could be dressed like soccer moms and festooned with press credentials, as we were; it made no difference. Mingle with the demonstrators, and you became an enemy of the state. Walls of cops blocked us at every turn--even preventing us, in one instance, from leaving a demonstration, and an L.A. Times reporter was hit between the eyes by a rubber bullet. You didn't even have to march with the protesters to feel the weight of the police state bearing down. Frustrated, perhaps, by an ACLU-won court order preventing them from closing down the Convergence, the cops turned on the next available "alternative" venue Tuesday night, first telling the Shadow folks they had to evacuate their hall on account of a bomb threat, then threatening to tear-gas them if they didn't go back inside. Arianna Huffington, bless her aristocratic soul, faced the LAPD down, angrily telling KPFK the next day that there was not "one America," as Clinton had said in his speech, but two--"One inside the Staples Center, and one outside."

You could find 1960s-style festivity at these demos--drummers, puppets, people dressed as clowns--and you could find hundreds of clean-cut Nader supporters in green T-shirts. But there was something else here too, a harder edge. The militant minority wore kerchiefs over their faces, which seemed like an affectation until we noticed that many of the faces behind the kerchiefs were brown and realized that masking was probably a sensible precaution. There were familiar chants like "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido," but also a lot of "Fuck the cops." There was even a bit of protester-perpetrated "violence" at one point on Monday night when a few members of the Black Bloc attempted to scale the fourteen-foot fence separating Staples from the police-constructed protest "pen." The cops responded with pepper spray. Some protesters--and in the fog of war we could not see for sure whether they were Black Bloc-ers--started throwing plastic water bottles, and later, chips of concrete, back at the police. This was, to say the least, unwise. A few minutes later, cops poured into the pen--where thousands of people were still assembled for the Rage Against the Machine concert--beating, trampling, and shooting rubber bullets at random.

What has happened, in the last thirty years, to separate the idealistic young so radically from their responsible liberal elders, if not from civilization itself? The answers were plainly written on some of the protesters' signs: "The Criminalization of a Generation" and the "Militarization of the Police."

Thirty years ago, the radical young might be denounced as spoiled products of affluence, but they still represented "our future." Today, kids in general, and especially kids of color, are targeted as "superpredators" and gang members, subject to curfews, anti-gang injunctions, high school drug war harassment, imprisonment along with adults, even execution.

Thirty years ago, the cops often seemed to be the anarchists, rioting uncontrollably, for example, in Chicago in '68. Today, they are a disciplined, high-tech army, bringing techniques honed in Third World interventions to Seattle, D.C., Philly, L.A. The few who would talk to us discounted the possibility of peaceful protest; a demonstration, they had been taught, is a prelude to riot.

In no way did the turmoil in the streets dampen the celebration of the status quo going on inside Staples. While Joe Lieberman proudly flashed his sole radical credential--that he had participated in the civil rights movement in the early sixties--Democratic officials on the roof above him watched and approved the police war against the young radicals of our own time.

So it was the Democratic Party that ultimately confirmed the dark apocalyptic vibe: It's no longer much interested in using government as a tool to achieve social justice, but it's more eager than ever to use government as an instrument of force. And we shouldn't need a bunch of anarchists to tell us this, but a society that destroys its own young, whether by poverty or beatings, is doomed.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.

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